In The Hotel on Place Vendome by Tilar J. Mazzeo there were the choices made by the owners and staff of a great hotel in Paris, the Ritz, during the German occupation. High ranking Germans stayed at the hotel. They enjoyed meals and celebrations with their French mistresses and French citizens working with the occupiers. While some hotel workers were in the French Resistance at the hotel they spent their shifts making life comfortable for the German occupiers. Madam Ritz and her staff conducted business as usual.
Choices were possible in Occupied Europe. The leaders of Bulgaria worked to protect their nation’s Jewish population. They refused to let them be deported to concentration camp. At the same time they made the choice not to oppose the transport of thousands of Jews from other nations, mainly Greece, who had sought refuge in Bulgaria.
I have written about my personal contacts with individual choices made in Occupied Europe. I met a Danish farm family who sheltered a German Jewish girl. I know a Dutch war bride who as a teenager altered ID cards in an office next to the local German Army headquarters. She successfully saved young men from being sent to Germany as slave labour.
Hitler’s Art Thief by Susan Ronald explored the life of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a respected professor of art history and museum director, who made the choice to become an art dealer benefiting from the forced sales, confiscations and looting of art works under Nazi rule. He was a classic war profiteer only concerned with profiting from the opportunities of war. He was uncaring about the fate of Jews beyond his family. He exploited Nazi ideology to become rich. Cooly objective he was among the earliest to realize how the Nazis would govern and conqueor and later that they were going to lose the war. He made money in victory and defeat.
By contrast, Josef Muller, in Church of Spies by Mark Riebling made a different set of personal choices. A lawyer and devout Catholic he could have had a profitable war. Refusing to grovel to Heinrich Himmler in the mid-1930’s he turned down an invitation to join the SS because its principles were opposed to his principles. He aided Jews in his law practice. Muller opposed Hitler acting as a courier and a liason between Pope Pius XII and the German Resistance led by Admiral Canaris in the Abwehr. He put his life at stake.
Albert Goring made choices that were both profitable and principled. The brother of Hermann Goring he enjoyed opportunities in the armaments industry spending most of the war working as the export director of Skoda in Czechoslovakia. While diligently working to build weapons for the Wehrmacht he also aided Jews and others being persecuted by the Nazis. Using his connections with Hermann he saved a significant number of people. He refused to adopt the customs of the Nazis. He was known in Czechoslovakia for responding to the stiff arm of the Hitler salute with a lift of his hat.
For German soldiers there was the decision on whether to participate in the Holocaust. For every fictional Bernie Gunther who refused to take part and was re-assigned there were an abundance of real life Arthur Nebe’s who moved from the Berlin Police Department to the killing fields of Western Russia in 1941.
Average Germans had their own choices.
Several thousand Berlin residents protected, fed and housed about 2,000 Jews during the war. These Jews were known as U-boats as they secretly lived in Germany’s capital.
Many more thousands personally profited from the Holocaust. In Seduced by Hitler there is the story of how over 100,000 residents of Hamburg chose to buy, from 1941 to 1945, at bargain prices in public auctions the furnishings confiscated from Jews sent to concentration camps. Such auctions were held throughout Germany.
Gitta Sereny in her book, The Healing Wound, talked about an aspect of German culture that continues to lead Germans to conformity with the prevailing establishment. She spoke of “Obrigkeit – authority or hierarchy”. In talking about young people a generation after the war she said:
Only a few of them connect own incapacity for battling with authority, with the unprecedented success of the totalitarian idea in Germany.
While culture played a role every German made his or her own choices.
In my travels to Germany I have met one man who was an avowed Nazi. It was in 1981 and he had been physically unfit to serve during the war. He had an amazing collection of German war memorabilia and would ring a bell next to a skull in a German helmet in honour of the millions of German war dead. He added that in 50 years Hitler would be known as the Saint from Braunau.